In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which promotes and safeguards the science of astronomy, passed a resolution that classified all bodies (except satellites) in our solar system into three distinct categories – planets, dwarf planets, and Small Solar System Bodies. To qualify as a planet, the body had to orbit around the sun, have sufficient mass for its self-gravity to pull it into a round shape, and have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. Since Pluto did not meet the third criterion, it was downgraded to a dwarf planet.
Now, a group of NASA scientists not only want to restore Pluto’s original status but also reclassify over 100 celestial bodies, including our moon, as planets. The team, led by John Hopkins researcher Kirby Runyon, believes that a planet should be defined by the intrinsic qualities of the celestial body itself, not the external surroundings like its orbit or other objects. They argue that any object in our solar system that hasn’t undergone nuclear fusion and has enough gravitational pull to maintain a round shape, should be called a planet. Under this new definition everything, except for stars, black holes, asteroids, and meteorites, would be considered a planet. This means the number of planets in our solar system would expand from the current eight to almost 110! Among them would be Pluto, our moon, and all newly discovered worlds that are currently dubbed exoplanets.
Though that may sound a lot, especially for students who have to memorize their names, Runyon believes calling them planets will elevate the prestige of the celestial bodies and stimulate the public’s interest. This curiosity will lead to more exploration of our solar system. Additionally, given that most planetary scientists are closely affiliated with geology and other geosciences, the new definition is more relevant than the IAU’s astronomical definition.
While the idea seems valid, the researchers, who presented their arguments at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held in Texas from March 20 to 24, still have to obtain approval from the IAU when it meets in Vienna in 2018. Until then, you will have to be satisfied with just eight planets!
Resources: Science Daily, sciencealert.com, newscientist.com, NASA.gov